Well, the results are in on The Return, and it seems that the reviews are generally scathing and that it’s being written off as a disaster at the box office. I can’t say that I’m shocked by either announcement, and I can’t say that I think The Return is exactly a good film. Neither do I think it’s without merit.
I’ll confess that my views may be colored by the fact that I saw it in special company. The presence of Don Mancini (Seed of Chucky), Jennifer Tilly and her boyfriend, Phil Laak (known in poker circles as “The Unabomber”) — all of whom liked it to one degree or another — very likely weighs in on it. But there’s more to it than that. Don put it best a couple days later — “If I’d run into it on TV knowing nothing about it, I’d have thought that the guy who made it was really talented and worth keeping an eye on.” Well, the guy who made it is a youngish Brit filmmaker named Asif Kapadia, whose first feature, The Warrior, was well received in the UK, but seems not much known in the U.S. (Miramax is listed as having released it here in 2005). Kapadia is indeed talented and worth keeping an eye on, even if The Return isn’t an entirely satisfactory movie.
Setting aside the fact that it was mismarketed as being like The Grudge (2004) and the fact that it seriously glams down star Sarah Michelle Gellar, the film’s central weakness lies in newcomer Adam Sussman’s screenplay. It’s simply not very good — and on occasion, stunningly awkward and sloppy. (If it weren’t for the press notes, I’d still be wondering just exactly what kind of company Gellar’s character works for as a salesperson!)
The story is essentially a shaggy-dog affair with a supernatural twist. Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a young woman who breaks her ban on going to Texas (no one seems to question why she has this ban) in order to make a big sale for the trucking company she represents. Once there, she’s haunted by strange memories (some of which don’t seem to be her own) and premonitions — with occasional time-out for episodes where she cuts herself. The opening scene — set in the past — lays the groundwork for this, as does a later visit to see her father (Sam Shepard).
However, the major thrust of the narrative concerns her involvement with a local, Terry Stahl (TV actor Peter O’Brien), who may or may not be a murderer — the odds leaning in favor of “may be,” since he lives in a creepy old farmhouse that clearly has the Psychotic Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In a singularly absurd plot device, Terry saves her from the unwanted attentions of her jealous co-worker Kurt (Adam Scott, Art School Confidential), who has preposterously followed her to Texas for reasons I still don’t understand. From this clunky girl-meets-boy scenario, something like a relationship develops — despite the locals warning her from getting involved with Terry.
There’s not much here other than getting to the bottom of the mystery of her visions, which leads to a payoff that at least partly works, despite a silly plot contrivance and an ending that ought to have stopped about three minutes before it does. That said, there’s enough style and creativity to Kapadia’s handling of the rather threadbare material to keep up the interest — and more.
The opening of the film with young Joanna (newcomer Darrian McClanahan) being terrorized at a carnival by a barely glimpsed man who calls her “sunshine” is well-handled in a manner that recalls the sinister carnival atmosphere of Tobe Hooper’s underrated The Funhouse (1981). However, Kapadia quickly proves that he’s not just another horror movie geek wearing his homages on his sleeve. He cleverly reverses the usual procedure of presenting the past as faded and washed-out and the present as looking more normal. In Kapadia’s approach, it’s the present that’s shown in muted, drab colors. The past, on the other hand, is vividly colored — almost to the point of exaggeration. It’s a neat trick, but it’s more than that because it skillfully conveys the sense that Joanna’s memories are more real and immediate and central to her life than the reality of her day-to-day existence. The approach is at once a stylistic inversion of tradition and thematically sound. The garishly colored past — most notably in a memory of going into a bar that’s bathed in reds — is beautifully achieved and oddly unsettling.
Other moments — an eerie scene where out-of-focus car lights in the background appear to float past in an otherworldly manner, for example — are equally effective. And there’s no denying that Kapadia can deliver the occasional jolt and suspense — at least to the degree that the screenplay will let him. In a sense, the lack of a substantial and wholly satisfying story actually brings the direction into focus, but it’s at the expense of the film overall. I’m not sure I can really recommend the movie, but as a superb example of a filmmaker more than making the most of his material, it’s a fascinating experience. Rated PG-13 for violence, terror and disturbing images.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke